Adoption row highlights need for rethink of church-state relations

London, UK - JAN 30, 2007 Responding to comments from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and the most senior figure in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, the independent UK religious think-tank Ekklesia says it is a mistake to automatically conflate church-based initiatives in civil society with government-sponsored services.

The Cardinal has suggested that the Government’s refusal to allow its publicly-funded adoption agencies to refuse gay adoptees poses a threat to the voluntary work carried out by all churches. Ekklesia says this is not so.

Instead it suggests that the “adjustment period” of 21 months creates a fresh opportunity for a “mature and careful reconsideration on both sides of the role of the churches in relation to the government, with its responsibility to provide for all, and civil society, where there is space for a number of actors and different contributions.”

The basis of this reconsideration, says Ekklesia, needs to be an acknowledgement that Britain is not a ‘Christian country’ but a plural society in which the great majority of the population are no longer regular Christian adherents.

The churches can therefore no longer assume that their definitions of what is right will be accepted by everybody, especially when public money is going into service intended for the whole community, it says. But this is an opportunity not a threat for the churches.

The think tank points out that discrimination against lesbian and gay people has been strongly opposed by a number of Christians on theological grounds, and that the churches need to acknowledge that they do not speak with one voice.

Ekklesia says that the argument about church and government is “deeply confused” when people ignore the crucial distinction between public provision and voluntary action.

“Reactions to the Equality Act, which most people see as a matter of consistency and fairness, hark back to the Christendom era when the action of government was based solely or largely on principles determined by the churches”, commented Ekklesia co- director Simon Barrow. “However, we are no longer in that era.”

Ekklesia argues that there is no general threat to church-based voluntary initiatives, but says that arguing against equal treatment in public services “is bound to cause hostility towards the church, with people questioning whether it is fit to be a state recognised provider.”

The think-tank says that instead of resisting change, the churches need to take a positive attitude to what the Cardinal described today as a "loss of power", since this gives them an opportunity to recover the dynamic of the Christian message as an identification with those at the margins of society.

The Cardinal made his remarks on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning (30 January 2007) following a statement from Downing Street yesterday.

Additional information for editors
1. Ekklesia began in 2002 and was listed by the Independent newspaper in 2005 as one of the top 20 British thinktanks. It promotes transformative theological ideas in public life.

2. Ekklesia has worked in the area of religion and public life since its formation in 2002. Its co-directors and associates have much longer experience in the area, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds.

3. Ekklesia is an independent think tank which is not formally linked to any Christian body or denomination.